Master of my domain

… (T)he best persuaded of himself, so cramm’d, as he thinks, with excellencies that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him.

Twelfth Night, 2.3.150-152 (1623)

The counterrevolution has begun.

The press is pushing back against its critics over the Kermit Gosnell affair. Stung by the criticisms and the hypocrisies detailed by Mollie Hemingway on this website, Kirsten Powers at USA Today and other outlets, some have begun reporting on the murder trial of the Philadelphia abortionist. Other outlets in their op-ed sections have defended their non-coverage or sought to deflect criticisms – – the New York Times‘ Tiller editorial is classic sleight-of-hand, substituting one story for another. “Nothing here to see folks. Move along.”

A few have embarked upon the high road. Writing in Religion Dispatches Diane Winston argues in “The Myth of News Media as Secularist Conspiracy” there has never been a golden era when reporters

provided smart, in-depth, contextualized coverage of religious leaders, issues, ideas, and communities.

In support of this contention, the article offers historical examples purporting to show the press has always done a poor job — missing stories, printing pablum in place of news or voicing prejudice such as H.L. Menken’s critique of Fundamentalism in his account of the Scope’s “monkey” trial or the “anti-Hindu coverage that ran through Western newspapers in the 1910s and 1920s.” The crux of her argument is that the problem is not a lack of:

trained religion reporters, but rather Americans’ widespread ignorance about religion. Religion is absent from many high school curricula and university classrooms, and many of us barely know the religious history of our own country much less the role of religion worldwide.

But her argument then pivots, stating:

Yet, I’m not convinced that improving the American educational system is really at the heart of Cannon’s plaint about religion coverage and his subsequent post on Kermit Gosnell.

Making more Americans aware of religion and historical incidents like an anti-Hindu press — a history of which I was not aware — would not have mattered in the Gosnell story as:

The Gosnell story is not a religion story, it’s a crime story. People with religious convictions may read their passions into it, but Gosnell did not seem to be motivated one way or the other by a faith commitment. Yet cultural religionists imply that the absence of religious commitment in the nation’s newsrooms—and consequent acceptance of baby-killing, oops abortion, is among the reasons that the Gosnell story was overlooked.

The notion that the news media is a secularist cabal ignoring stories that challenge its shibboleths is wrongheaded.

I do not agree. There is just a hint of Coriolanus going before the plebs here. That large sections of the media believe an abortionist charged with multiple counts of murder is a crime story without significant religious or moral overtones speaks to the failings and biases of the press, not readers. (One need only look to the loss of market share and trust the mainstream media have experienced to know that all is not well — or the studies and monographs on the triumph of ideology over reporting in major American newspapers.)Nor does she show a logical connection between her observations about ignorance of the audience and the silence about Gosnell.

Criticisms voiced by GetReligion have nothing to do with the private conscience of reporters who write about religion but about their ignorance of the topics they are covering coupled with a self-satisfied, complacent, high opinion of their own importance and disdain for views that conflict with their own. Large sections of the American press are like Mr. Podsnap who “stood very high in Mr. Podsnap’s opinion,” — they see religion reporting through the lens of anthropology and institutions, not through the culture and belief of people.

And it is this failure of intelligence, relevance and imagination that lies behind the Gosnell fracas. The personal views of reporters are irrelevant — it is their professional competence at issue.

Let me offer an example of good religion journalism to illustrate my argument of ideology free competent reporting. In a front page story Warsaw’s Gazeta Wyborcza last week reported on a paper released by the Polish Bishops’ Conference (Konferencja Episkopatu Polski) objecting to in vitro fertilization, abortion, euthanasia, and contraception, arguing they were a threat to humanity.

In vitro fertilization should be “banned” because it:

begins with masturbation… All doubts in the field of human existence should be resolved in favor of life. We must also stand firmly against all kinds of action that are a threat to humans. Even the loftiest purpose does not justify actions that put human life in danger,” reads the document written by the Bishops’ Bioethics Expert Team

“A Christian must care about the truth. This is why he or she should uncover lies, one of which is the particularly harmful suggestion that in vitro fertilization is a treatment for infertility. It does not treat anything. Infertile people stay infertile. They entrust the production of children to strangers,” the bishops write.

According to the authors of the document, in vitro is the poorly-fulfilled desire of infertile couples, who wish to be parents. The church authorities believe that it gives permission “to sacrifice a few human beings” in order to have a child. This refers to the embryos that are destroyed during in vitro trials. “The sperm is obtained from a father through masturbation, the mother’s body is repeatedly manipulated, meaning that the child becomes a product,” the document reads.

These quotes are a gift. When reporters dream, unlike other men (and women), they dream dreams of bishops condemning masturbation. The possibilities for displaying smutty lowbrow humor are endless. Yet given this set up, the Gazeta Wyborcza plays it straight giving the bishops space to explain their views — to paraphrase my colleague TMatt, they allow people not just paper to speak.

Archbishop [Henryk] Hoser is the main author of the paper. Trained as a physician, he is one of the Episcopal Commission on Bioethics’ experts.  Yesterday he said: “The prenatal human is viewed more as a thing, not as a human being [by those who support IVF]. Many lives are lost in a procedure intended to produce a sole survivor.

[The Church] opposes the creation of extra embryos produced to be frozen and considers this tantamount to killing them. “Most frozen and thawed embryos die in the process or are otherwise unable to continue healthy growth. Yet the embryo is a person and each embryo turns out to be a helpless member of the human family, whose dignity and rights are ruthlessly trampled.”

Against these comments Gazeta Wyborcza sets contradictory medical opinion.

“Not true. Medicine is moving forward. Maybe 20-25 years ago you could propound this thesis, but not today. … [If properly stored the rate of success of frozen embryos] in implantation in the uterus is the same, or even greater than in the case of embryos transferred without freezing,” argues Prof. Waldemar Kuczynski, Chairman of the Section of Fertility and Infertility of the Polish Gynecological Society and consultant to the government program … The bishops’ arguments are “biased and unfair”.

The article also points to what it believes to be an inconsistency in the bishops’ argument.

The hierarchy also criticized contraception and abortion … “Claiming the right to abortion is an expression of a highly unworthy conduct …”. Anti-abortion rhetoric is heard more often in the church, but in the 90s the bishops approved the so-called Compromise Law that allowed abortion in three cases: rape, danger to life or health of the mother, and severe irreversible damage to the fetus.

Why is this a good article? It is a straight forward summary of the report with comments from critics. First off, the article pulled quotes from the report that would excite its readers, while also providing quotes that placed the controversial statements in context. Both sides can hear their points of view expressed clearly, the article provides the key quotes from the report, places them in context and allows the church to explain why it said what it said. It also wrote this story with its audience — not against it. There is no mockery (that I could see) as it takes its audience’s faith seriously — it understands these are moral questions not merely “health news”.

But this is not a pro-church puff piece. The criticisms are given a full airing and the newspaper’s skepticism of the absolutist position on abortion is made clear by reference to the church’s tolerance for some abortions.

Ask yourself if you believe the New York Times would have printed this story? Which takes me back to the defense of the non-reporting on the Gosnell trial. Perhaps it is old news, a local crime story that would upset readers with the testimony of savagery and barbarity worthy of Auschwitz? Or then again could there be a “secularist cabal ignoring stories that challenge its shibboleths”?

Whatever you may decide, what the press has done (returning once more to Maria’s description of Malvolio in Twelfth Night) is that it has shown itself to be an “affection’d ass”.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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  • John Pack Lambert

    Well, since just this last week an officer of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania revealed they knew of deplorable conditions at Dr. Gosnell’s clinic and did nothing, it is not really old news. Planned Parenthood’s spokespeople claim they encoraged those involved to report, but no one has come forward to confirm this encoragement. It is also unclear why Planned Parenthood itself would not report. Well, OK it is, professional solidarity.

    Do not expect to see this covered by the general defenders of Planned Parenthood.

    • Kodos

      But the press excoriated the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church for knowing about pedophiles within their institutions but not alerting authorities about them.

      Surely we can expect the press to be equally offended that Planned Parenthood knew about the conditions at Gosnell’s clinic but did not alert the proper authorities.

      • Martha

        PP affiliate Southern Pennsylvania recommended that the women telling them about Gosnell’s clinic make official complaints, but do not appear to have made complaints themselves or offer to help women make these complaints.

        Susan Komen Foundation says it is withdrawing funding and bam! national campaign and press coverage out the door until PP and its cheerleaders bully them into restoring the same.

        Concern for health of women: nil. Concern for money: all the points. Will we see a story comparing and contrasting the actions of PP affiliates in these cases? I’m not going to hold my breath waiting.

  • chuck

    There is a time for reporting and a time for editorializing. I would expect the reporting on the words of the Bishops to be straight. I would expect the editorial as portraying them as refugees from a lunatic asylum. Both would be accurate.

    • http://areformedcatholicinthepcusa.blogspot.com Reformed Catholic

      Good comment, until the last phrase … backhanded slap at the bishops ??

  • JoFro

    Religion Dispatches is possibly the worst – and I mean – THE WORST – website I have seen when it comes to accurately reporting on religion. HuffPo’s religion section, even though I disagree with them alot, is actually quite a brilliant read! But Religion Dispatches – it’s mind numbingly bad! I’m so sorry you had to even read an article from their website. I really am!

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com Nancy Reyes MD

    Just wondering: has anyone covered it as a medical article? If so, it points to a physician who pushed drugs (which is how the FBI found out what was going on). Then you have the problem of no clinical oversight of “outpatient surgery centers”: there are regulations on cleaning and how to dispose of human “waste” to prevent HIV spread. In Gosnell’s “clinic” this was babies in refrigerators, but most clinics have to follow regulations to discard the various lumps and bumps we remove, we have to use gloves and discard them in special containers, we have to sterilize equipment etc. all of which seems not to have been done here.
    Finally, where is the medical society here? I suspect a lot more women were treated for complications than reported, but no one apparently checked into the complaints. And who was Gosnell’s malpractice insurance carrier? They usually limit your scope of practice for surgical procedures unless you pay a higher premium.
    So forget “religion”. This shows failure of oversight of clinics by the medical establishment that is supposed to protect people from poorly trained physicians.

    • John Pack Lambert

      I don’t know who Gosnell’s malpractice insurance was, but there were apparently 46 malpractice suits against him, including the one for the 2000 death of Semika Shaw that lead to a $900,000 settlement. Shaw’s case involves the only documented complaint to the state helath department, whuich leads to a question, if the hospitals around were getting multiple bothced abortion cases why were they not filining formal, written complaints? Shaw’s case has in part come to light because he cousin is now a member of the Pennsylvania State House, and justified her voting for the additional regulations of abortionists by bringing up her counsins death. As a democrat she had to provide clear reasoning why she was voting to regulate one of her main potential sources of funding.

      The Atlatic did run an article about the drug line, calling it a “possible good to the war on drugs”. However with Gosnell’s practice having involved employees taking drug kickbacks, I have to seriously wonder why we would have any question of wanting high regulation of these drugs.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com Nancy Reyes MD

    oh: I just googled Gosnell on American medical news and got one article, in January 2011:http://www.amednews.com/2011/01/31/prra0131.htm
    So not a lot of coverage in “medical news” sites either.
    And where was OSCA?
    article on medical waste disposal in Pennsylvania: http://www.envcap.org/statetools/rmw/pa-rmw.cfm
    OSHA standards:http://www.envcap.org/rmw/osha-bps.cfm
    and we and our employees have to actually take a course on how to do this correctly, because of the danger of spreading Hepatitis B and C, HIV, blood borne pathogens and (in Gosnell’s case) some STD’s…
    more at http://www.bio-ops.net/medical%20waste2/osha%20compliance.html

  • sari

    I am still waiting for the Golden Era of Religion Reporting whose passing y’all lament. What you’re really referring to is the bygone age where the press was biased in favor of the predominant religion (Christianity) and familiar with its basic tenets (probably from exposure in childhood). Outside of NYC, non-Christians were pretty much ignored by the press, just as they were by the public. So, it seems to me that the press’ current position reflects the overall decline in religion as a *public* institution, a culture-wide bias, rather than being confined to newsrooms.

  • Martha

    “The Gosnell story is not a religion story, it’s a crime story.”

    Then that makes the lack of coverage even more glaring. Let’s construct a hypothetical case: the founder and proprietor of a health clinic distributing an alleged ‘cure-all’ herbal mixture is arrested and tried with contributing to the deaths of a woman who took this mixture (either because of adverse interaction with medication she was taking, or because the stuff was chock-full of poisons). It turns out that the relevant authorities who were supposed to monitor these kinds of health shops and wellness clinics never bothered to investigate the conditions.

    Even worse, it turns out that over the years there were a string of complaints by local hospitals about people turning up in the emergency rooms with conditions exacerbated or brought on by taking this herbal remedy, but the authorities swept it under the carpet. When the clinic was finally investigated for unrelated matters (it was alleged that it was selling prescription drugs without a licence), the state of affairs revealed there was shocking: dirt and filth everywhere, out of date ingredients, untrained workers, all kinds of dangerous or even poisonous material being used to make the remedy, breaches of health and safety all over the place.

    And when it came to why this clinic was overlooked by the authorities, there was a suggestion that it was because the attitude was “Let’s not interfere with access to alternative medicine” because a particular superior or group of them were devotees of the same.

    Do you think there might be national coverage of this case? Do you think the media might be all over the story with demands for who, why, how and what heads will roll? Might we get a series on “Alternative Medicine: How It is Abused” and investigations into how many quacks are out there poisoning their clients? When Dr. Smith came to trial, would the media be interested in the gory details of what conditions were like, how many people were sickened or rendered ill for life, and the kinds of abuses perpetrated in manufacturing this mixture?

    Or would it be brushed off with “That’s a local story”, “I don’t cover crime” and “We did one story on it back when it was first announced”?

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    As a Catholic and a bioethicist, I think that abortion, IVF, and other issues can be argued against on non-religious terms, given some agreement on the value of human life and the meaning of science. The problem with non-religious ethics, by which I mean, ethics flowing from an atheistic view, is that the value of human life and the meaning of science are not necessarily common ground. In fact, as far as I can tell, if one presumes no God, ethics reduces to a kind of relativistic utilitarianism, which basically means ethical anarchy.

    If there is an underlying acceptance of atheism or at least of areligiosity in the media and thereby the presumption that religiosity is unreasonable, that will show in their coverage of topics such as Gosnell and the Polish bishops.

    @chuck, if the bishops are in fact “refugees from a lunatic asylum” — a highly offensive choice of terms by the way, and I mean from the perspective of the mentally ill and the principle of tolerance — then to play it straight in the news would be deficient reporting. If in an editorial the bishops are rightly portrayed as such, then that editorial perspective will spill over into the reporting, and rightly so. The notion that the mainstream media consider Catholic bishops to be lunatics is a manifestation of the very bias that makes this website so necessary.

  • sari

    “If there is an underlying acceptance of atheism or at least of areligiosity in the media and thereby the presumption that religiosity is unreasonable, that will show in their coverage of topics such as Gosnell and the Polish bishops.”

    I disagree. Every society subscribes to presumed truths and defines which behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable, moral/immoral/amoral–the defaults, if you will. Your statement, “if one presumes no God, ethics reduces to a kind of relativistic utilitarianism, which basically means ethical anarchy”, suggests that atheism’s logical conclusion, is the absence of a moral compass and subscription to a sort of social Darwinism which places no value on human life–a worldview inconsistent with that of people who believe in a divine being. Not, just not.

    If you want proof, look at countries like India, where the majority of the population is Hindu (a religion) yet has a long (very long) history of performing post-natal female infanticide and currently of sex-selected abortion. Look at the genocide performed by Christians during the Shoah; non-combatant populations were selectively targeted for annihilation. None of these suggest value placed on human life. Quite the contrary. They suggest that *some* human lives are valuable and others are not.

    The press has been negligent, for whatever reason, in covering the Gosnell case, but we should be careful not to presume anti-religious sentiment as the reason. Nor should we downplay how demonizing the non-religious affects their attitude towards the very religious. There’s a marked lack of tolerance in both directions.

    • John Pack Lambert

      To say the Holocaust was carried out by “Christians” ignores the nature of the religio-political views of the Nazis. Many key Nazis emphatically rejected Christianity and proacticely embraced Paganism. They even more clearly rejected Christianity as a way to understand the wolrd. In fact, it is much easier to argue that many of the “Jews” killed by the Nazis were believing Christians than to argue that those who carried it out were believing Christians.

    • Richard Mounts

      Sari, there is much truth in what you say. The horrors of the Shoah, especially, are not defensible on any religious grounds. The so-called Christians who participated in any way acted on perversion of Christian faith. A faith perverted begining with those at the very top. A perversion as deadly as the perversion of Islam by Mulsim terrorists. I defend no one, no group here. But I ask you to never believe that any true Christian believes the Shoah was justifed by their faith.

      You comment about practices of female infanticide and sex-selection abortions in India prompts me to ask some journalistic questions. Is it Hindi that do these things? Are these practices approved in Hindu theology? I know practically nothing of Hinduism so knowing would be helpful. What does civil law in India say about these atrocities? Can someone be a “cultural Hindu?” The U.S.A. is often called a Christian country but sex-selection abortions happen here, heck all kinds of abortions happen here, done by Chrisitans. We have murders commited by people who say they are Christian, but are really white supremicists who say their “faith” justifies their actions. They lie.There are all kinds of mingling of culture, faith, self-delusion, and just plain evil that lead to these and other acts of violence. People will always grab for whatever justification they think will excuse their behavior.

      That gets to what I see as the point of AuthenticBioethics’ comment. Any religion, theology, or moral philosophy that is not based on a set of agreed absolute values leads to ethical anarchy. Why? Because then it’s just man-made laws, man-made rules. If two people don’t agree on the value of human life in society, and the basis for that value, then one decision that sex-selection abortion is right and good is as valid that such action is wrong and bad. I go so far to say that without monotheism (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) no consistant morality, and thus just law, is possible. It’s all relativism. I can do what I want. So can you. Of course you may believe that my death is justified just because you think so. And what can I do about it without an agreed basis for human rights?

      Why does any of this matter to the question of journalism? Without shared, agreed moral norms (by a substantial majority of society at least) we get advocacy, editorial exposition, self-justification, an inability of society to comprehend the actions of others. We don’t get truth. There is no Truth. Ultimately there is no justification by whatever government might exist to protect all its citizens. You just have tribalism, gangsterism, might makes right.

      • sari

        Richard, I’m simply suggesting that every society has a basic set of accepted norms to which most of its members subscribe, and that these norms can exist even in the absence of religion or belief in G-d. Conversely, religious endorsement can facilitate and legitimate great evil. The German churches protested loudly and emphatically against early Nazi programs which euthanized the mentally and physically incompetent, a precursor to the Final Solution, but their silence was, with few exceptions, deafening on the topic of the Aryan Laws, ghettoization, marginalization, and expropriation of their Jewish neighbors. Christian churches supported slavery in the Deep South and used the Bible to dehumanize people on the basis of color. Among my own people, the most religious element can also be most ethically challenged, violent and intolerant. And all over the world, wars are being fought in the name of Islam.

        G-d must be crying as He watches us behave like animals in His Name.

        The topic here concerns the media’s silence on Gosnell (I can’t bring myself to use the word doctor). Shame on them. But to impute rationale and engage in name-calling, to assume an inability to act in an ethical and moral manner because one subscribes to a different set of beliefs, makes a person sound exactly like the people he’s criticizing. And, as my daughter pointed out, spotty governmental oversight is not limited to abortion facilities but is endemic to food, pharmaceuticals, imports, immigration, slaughterhouses, etc. At issue is not religion or even abortion but medical malpractice by a very immoral man and his immoral staff, and the regulatory agencies which failed repeatedly to stop him. The rest is commentary and should be avoided.

  • mollie

    I admire your restraint on the Polish coverage, even if I’m mildly disappointed.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Then there is this biased http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2013/04/24/is-obama-bailing-on-planned-parenthood-because-of-kermit-gosnell-actually-no/ article about President Obama not going to the Planned Parenthood gala.

    While at least they report the fact that Planned Parenthood admited a failure to report what they knew of Gosnell to the authorities, the acceptance of Obama’s speakeperson’s claim as to why his actions are happening as the absolute truth is shocking. No matter how oten the Pope Benedict gave much better reasons for his actions than the connections the press was pushing, they always pushed a darker agenda.

    This is not reporting, this is spin-pushing for the president. The Washington Post is acting like President Obama’s press secretary, trying to spin his actions in as postive a light as possible.

  • FW Ken

    That’s silly. Human rights have traditionally been closely aligned to religion. Christians hid Jews during World War II as a religious act. The Civil Rights movement in the United States was led by Christian preachers and Jewish rabbis. Liberal protestant churches have made gay rights intrinsic to their religious identity (the Episcopalians come to mind). But somehow the human rights of unborn children has nothing to do with religion.

  • dalea

    At a very basic level of coverage, has any reporter gone to the Fire Marshall and asked to see the reports on the clinic? IMHE, the one dependable and reliable regulatory agency is the local Fire Marshall’s office. Most places inspect every six months, the inspection is done in person and covers the whole premises. From the reports, there appear to be numerous fire safety violations. Flammable liquids scattered about, no organization of hazordous materials, refrigeration beyond capacity, blocked exits, the list goes on. And fire inspections should be public documents, readily seen by a reporter. Wheather or no there have been fire inspections would tell a whole lot about how this happened. And would be easy reporting.

    • John Pack Lambert

      Somehow I would not be surprised to find the fire marshall does not do due dilligence in some parts of Philadelphia. However this would be something worth following up on.

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